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Italy celebrates capture of most-wanted Mafia boss

The arrest of a Sicilian Mafia boss 30 years after he went into hiding is seen as closing a chapter on the dark and bloody years of the Mafia's war on the state in the early 1990s.

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — The arrest of Matteo Messina Denaro, Italy's most-wanted Mafia boss, on Monday at a private medical clinic in Palermo is being hailed as a historic moment in the fight against the Cosa Nostra.

Messina Denaro was arrested without any resistance when he showed up for cancer treatment at the La Maddalena clinic on the outskirts of Palermo, the Sicilian capital that's struggled to free itself from the Mafia's grip.

More than 100 police and soldiers were involved in the arrest. By Tuesday, Messina Denaro was transferred to a maximum-security prison in L'Aquila in central Italy where other Mafia bosses are held in Italy's tough system of solitary confinement.

Messina Denaro went into hiding 30 years ago after he was accused of being among several Mafia bosses behind bombings that killed anti-Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992. The Mafia's war against the state continued in 1993 with deadly bomb attacks in Florence, Milan and Rome. He was accused of being behind those attacks too.

He was tried and sentenced to life in prison in absentia in 2002 in connection to numerous murders, including the kidnapping, torture and killing of an 11-year-old son of a mafioso-turned-state witness. The boy, Giuseppe Di Matteo, was strangled and his body was never found after it was dumped in acid in 1996.

The killings of Falcone and Borsellino led to a popular uprising against the Mafia in Sicily and throughout Italy, compelling Italian authorities to make hundreds of arrests and crack down on political corruption.

Maurizio De Lucia, the Palermo prosecutor general, characterized Messina Denaro as the last of the Mafia bosses wanted for the deadly attacks in 1992-1993.

“It was a debt that the republic owed toward the victims of those years,” De Lucia said at a news conference on Monday. “This debt has been partly settled.”

On Tuesday, Italian police said Messina Denaro was living in an apartment in Campobello di Mazzara only 5 miles away from Castelvetrano, a southwestern Sicilian town where he was born and rose to become one of Sicily's most feared Mafia bosses.

Italian authorities said he was living in an apartment of an ally and had used his identity to get medical treatment. Police said Messina Denaro was living well and wore a wristwatch worth $37,000 when he was arrested.

The discovery of his hideout so close to his hometown, the ease with which he received medical treatment under a false name and reports that he lived a seemingly normal life raise questions about the effectiveness of police efforts to find him and whether he received widespread support to hide.

Following news of his arrest, town leaders and citizens in Castelvetrano hailed his capture as a turning point that lifts the Mafia's shadow over the town.

“This is a day of celebration,” said Enzo Alfano, the town's mayor, speaking to local media. “Today allows us to look toward the future with optimism.”

People in Palermo also were seen singing the national anthem and applauding Messina Denaro's arrest. Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni flew to Palermo on Monday to pay homage to Falcone and Borsellino and praise Messina Denaro's capture as a historic moment. She proposed making Jan. 16 a national holiday to celebrate the fight against the Mafia.

“This is a great victory for the state,” Meloni said.

Messina Denaro's arrest raises the possibility he may collaborate with Italian authorities and provide more information about who else might have been behind the killings of Falcone and Borsellino.

The Mafia boss once boasted he could “fill a cemetery” with his victims. He also was accused of overseeing racketeering, illegal waste dumping, money laundering and drug trafficking. Among mafiosi, he was given the nickname “Diabolik” – the name of a popular comic book series about a thief who can't be caught – and “U Siccu,” or “Skinny” in Sicilian dialect.

He was believed to be a protégé of Toto Riina, the head of the Corleone Mafia clan, who was arrested in 1993 after 23 years on the run.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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